Alex Nylander doesn’t know whether he’ll remain with the Sabres beyond Jack Eichel’s two-game suspension, but the former first-round draft pick intends to make the most of the opportunity.
The forward, drafted eighth overall in 2016, has played just seven NHL games over the last two seasons, recording one goal and one assist.
“I’m just going to play my best and obviously I hope to be here for longer,” Nylander said after joining the Sabres for practice Monday at KeyBank Center. “I’m just trying to play my best and work hard every single day I’m here.”
Nylander, 21, skated on the second line with center Evan Rodrigues and forward Conor Sheary.
Casey Mittelstadt centered the top line alongside Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville. Vladimir Sobotka centered the third line featuring Tage Thompson and Sam Reinhart.
Nylander also skated on the second power play unit with Mittelstadt, Skinner, Kyle Okposo and Brandon Montour.
#Sabres lines at today’s practice with Eichel suspended:
Girgensons, Nelson, Eichel
— Jason Wolf (@JasonWolf) March 11, 2019
In 49 games this season in Rochester, Nylander has career highs of 12 goals and and 31 points, and his 19 assists equal a career high. He scored in each of his last four contests.
“I’d like to see the exact same things that got him an opportunity to come up and play for us,” Sabres coach Phil Housley said. “I was just talking with (general manager) Jason (Botterill) and (Amerks coach) Chris Taylor. He’s playing very well right now. Obviously, he’s scoring, he’s shooting the puck a lot more, and we want him to attack the game with that same focus that he’s had when he’s been in Rochester.”
Nylander was promoted from the Amerks for the first time this season in the wake of Eichel’s suspension for hitting Colorado Avalanche center Carl Soderberg with an illegal check to the head late in the second period of Saturday’s 3-0 loss at Colorado.
Eichel will miss the next two home games, against Dallas on Tuesday and Pittsburgh on Thursday, giving Nylander at least a brief opportunity to show he belongs in the NHL.
“It’s obviously an unfortunate situation,” Sheary said. “Jack’s kind of the heartbeat of this team. He makes our team go. To see him get suspended is tough. But these are the opportunities that young guys need to kind of crack this league and solidify a spot in the NHL, so hopefully he can take advantage of his time.”
The Sabres have 14 games remaining in the regular season and have faded from playoff contention, going 2-8-2 in their last 12 games.
Nylander is only one of two players drafted in the top 10 in 2016 – the other being Vancouver defenseman Olli Juolevi, who has yet to make his NHL debut – to appear in fewer than 128 NHL regular-season games. He missed the first three months of last season, his second with the Amerks, with a severe groin strain.
“I just want to show that I can be here,” Nylander said. “I know I’m ready for this. I’m going to take this opportunity that I get and do the best I can with it.”
The Sabres announced that Jeffrey Cutler has been named the recipient of the 2019 J. Michael Duffett Memorial Award, presented each year to the coach or administrator whose contributions to amateur hockey in Western New York “best exemplify the knowledge, teaching, love of the game and gentle humanity of Mike.”
Cutler is the 34th recipient of the award, which will be presented Tuesday at the Sabres’ game against the Dallas Stars.
A native of Amherst, Cutler has coached youth hockey for 38 years. In 1993, he became one of the first sled hockey coaches in Western New York in hopes he could share his passion for hockey with his son, John, who was born with spina bifida. That same year, Cutler became a board member for WNY Physically Challenged Youth, a position he still holds.
Cutler has coached Brad Emmerson, Chris Manns, Al Salamone and Adam Page, who went on to play with Team USA at the national level and the Winter Paralympics. Cutler has won 22 championships, including the 2015 IPC Sled World Championship.